Members of Congress had four choices for dealing with the federal budget.
They could march right up to and fall off another fiscal cliff on Jan. 15 when about one-third of federal government operations once again would run out of money.
They could kick the budget can a little farther down the road with a temporary spending plan that takes them to yet another budget deadline on Feb. 7 when they again reach the federal debt ceiling.
They could craft what Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash, recently called a “small deal,” a budget agreement that takes sequestration off the table and gets them past both the 2014 mid-term elections and the next fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2015.
Or they could set aside their strident partisanship and put the needs of the public ahead of politics, to chart a new and bold fiscal course into the future.
In reality, only two of the options — “kick the can” and “small deal” — were in play.
Any member of Congress with a semblance of political smarts is averse to another sequestration. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs next year. Even tea party Republicans with congressional districts shaped for re-election can sense a public increasingly fed up with gridlock in Washington, D.C. Disgust and distrust for Republican and Democratic members of Congress alike is climbing to all-time highs as measured in recent public opinion polls. And President Obama’s approval rating is falling like a rock.
The other course of action that was never really on the table was the grand bargain that tackles all the beefy problems, including tax code and entitlement program reform. There’s just too much rancor and political divisiveness to imagine Republicans and Democrats working together on bold new ideas in a spirit of compromise.
So what House and Senate budget leaders — Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. — were able to do is about the best the country could expect. They forged a modest, two-year budget compromise that restores some military and domestic spending and cancels about half of the across-the-board budget cuts that are synonymous with sequestration. The measure passed the House on Thursday. In essence it’s a cease-fire in a budget war that has consumed Congress since 2011 and caused great harm to the American people.
Murray, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, finds herself in the political spotlight as someone who succeeded where many have failed. She was a key player in forging a budget compromise that at least returns the budget process to a more sensible, rational approach in which lawmakers establish program and project priorities and fund them accordingly. The unforgiving, mindless slashing of budgets at the same rate across all government activities is cast aside, at least for now.
This is perhaps Murray’s proudest moment in a 20-year Senate career. She was a calm voice of reason and a willing compromiser during the budget talks.
The small deal is far from perfect and contains features that upset both liberals, who sought an extension of unemployment benefits, and conservatives, who don’t want to relinquish spending cuts they fought for.
At its best, the deal struck by Ryan and Murray will pave the way for more bipartisan talks on budget matters both grand and small. That’s what the American people want from their elected officials.